Unpicking the Immigration Debate


Today’s release of the latest ONS quarterly immigration statistics has caused a predictable political storm, so I thought I would dip my toe into this emotive matter. The problem with the immigration debate is that people always start by shouting about EU controls and racism before considering the facts and trying to come to a considered conclusion. I can’t promise I will achieve this but I’ll give it a go. Please also note that when I refer to ‘national interests’ in this essay I mean the interests of all those currently residing here whatever their origins. And, yes, that includes those that arrived here as immigrants. Its a longer post than normal but bear with me.

When we discuss UK immigration policy we do have to distinguish between EU and non-EU migration because the law currently regards each category separately. I will mention both but initially I would like to discuss some general factors.

It would be fair to say that global population movement is becoming ever more straightforward. Improved global communications have made it much easier for potential migrants to learn about possible destinations and to compare their present situation to what they hope might be possible elsewhere. The over-riding desire is for a better life but that may be prompted by a number of drivers including economics, employment, corruption, poverty, war, disease, religious discrimination and any other number of the horrors that we see across our screens each day. In the worst case, these push factors are ruthlessly exploited by organized crime syndicates who traffic people in the most amoral and dangerous ways. Few will fail to be moved by pictures like this one taken near Australia.


The UK is clearly an attractive destination for many, and I was struck by a recent BBC interview of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by the Italian Navy, many of whom identified the UK as the place they wanted to go to. It is easy to understand why. The economy is prosperous, we have a solid legal system that protects individuals, by and large, from persecution, crime is low and we protect ourselves collectively with our welfare system (see my previous post on welfare). A key pull factor is the existence of trans-national networks in the form of relatives or friends who have already settled in a country and of course this is certainly the case for multicultural Britain.

The worrying aspect is the number of people that want to move. If you want to judge the potential scale of the problem then have a read of this Gallup paper. It takes a global perspective on migration but there are aspects of it that are startling for the UK. Some key facts are as follows:

* 700m adults worldwide would like to migrate to another country if they could.
* The US is the preferred destination followed by Canada and the UK
* The paper concludes that developed countries such as our own could be overwhelmed if aspirations became intentions.
* The desire to migrate is highest in sub-saharan Africa where 36% or 166m people would migrate if they could.
* In third place, the UK would attract 46m people with France 39m and Germany 26m

It is very hard to know for sure how many people would actually leave their own countries but as transport links and communications improve it will become easier, and if even a small proportion of those who aspire to migrate actually moved, then a great number of people could try to reach our shores. It is worth pondering these two images. The first shows the projected increase in the UK population, and the second redraws the map of the world according to population density. Compare the size of the UK with, say South America or the US. We already have lot of people.


cartogram population map

But does a large and growing population matter? Well it depends on your point of view and what matters to you. A sudden increase could place pressure on services, but if the economy was growing then this could be accommodated so long as there wasn’t a sudden surge. We also have space for new development at the moment but as a countryside dweller I would not wish to see our green spaces become totally covered over with concrete. That said, I am sure that there are many readers who love the city life who would place their cosmopolitan lifestyle high up the wish list of life. There are also the cultural changes that would undoubtedly occur as people from overseas became residents and brought in their own cultural norms. Now personally, I don’t really mind about these either. But I might if cultural diversity started to challenge the fundamental things that make me feel British such as our democracy, legal system and rights. I have touched on one component of this issue in my recent post The Religious State.

One important factor that is often ignored is the security implications of large-scale migration and this seems particularly relevant today. I have mentioned the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa wishing to move and you only have to look at the chaotic scenes in Italy as migrants are rescued, disembark and then disappear from holding camps to make their way illegally across Europe often without documents proving their origins. Whilst I am sure that the majority are just looking to improve their lot in life, it would be relatively straightforward for an organization like ISIS, for example, to deploy sleepers, amongst the throngs who may eventually come to these Isles to do us harm. There is also evidence that ISIS intend to use migrant movements to destabilise Southern Europe and shipping routes in the Mediterranean. This is certainly something that we need to bear in mind without assuming the worst in all those that make the treacherous crossing over the Med.

And then there is the economy. A key advantage of net immigration is that it can fill shortages of skills when the economy is growing fast. Whilst this perpetuates growth and suppresses inflation, it can be a double-edged sword. For example, we currently restrict the number of medical school places available for UK residents whilst bringing in trained foreign doctors to fill jobs in the NHS. There can be doubt that we have loads of bright kids that could fill additional places to study medicine and yet we choose to restrict the numbers to save money. I do like it when we save money, but I don’t like to see our kids stymied in their aspirations. More broadly, the danger is that we save money by outsourcing training and education to other countries who probably can’t afford the costs anyway and who suffer disproportionately when they lose domestically-trained individuals. It is a tricky one; where does the national interest lie, and whose national interest is it? The same applies to low-paid workers. We bring in foreign workers to do jobs on the minimum wage that many of our own people would decline. This keeps industry competitive but it also encourages some to rely on the welfare state which I discussed in the post linked earlier. If the entry of unskilled low-paid foreign workers was restricted then pay would rise and in-work benefits would subside…to the benefit of taxpayers but at a cost to industrial competitiveness.

Looking at these issues, it seems to be a problem of degree. We want migrants to come here but not in such numbers that we are overwhelmed or which disadvantages the people already resident here. Acting in the national interest is why we have countries. On balance, this does mean that we should implement comprehensive border controls. We do have one advantage and that is geography. Our Island status makes it easier to control entry and exit to the country although we would have to spend more than the existing and pitiful 1.7% of our tax revenue to so so. Neither should we distinguish between EU or non-EU migrants. We should judge each application on its merits and only take those immigrants that we have identified as being advantageous to accept according to our needs at that time. Now, that is not to say that we wouldn’t negotiate bilateral agreements that would waive visa requirements with certain countries but, in the case of the EU, it would be on a case by case basis. I have yet to understand why the free movement of people within the EU is such an important component of the internal market and it seems to me to be more of a measure designed to socially engineer economic equality rather than free trade. I will eventually write a post on the EU as I expect there will be no getting away from it, but for the moment it is sufficient to say that the EU is essentially a political structure and therefore all things can be negotiated if there is a will.

Finally, we cannot ignore the components that drive migration. We cannot resolve economic inequality by throwing open our doors but we can try to address some of the less desirable factors by playing a full role in the international community and by directing our overseas aid budget more strategically. And I will post on that too before long. But that is enough for now. Please be polite to me and one another.